The holidays are over. The boys are back to school. It's the first morning that I've been alone since mid-December. I forgot that I had wanted to wash their snow pants before today, until late last night. And packing lunches took more concentration than usual. Somehow the winter re-entry to the regular routine is always rough one, jarring and rocky, and with that deep-inside-felt frenzy of scrambling to keep pace.

Even in September, after that long, lazy stupor of summer, the return to routine is smoother. You ease into it. Maybe it's because with the sunshine and warmth in the evenings, that summer feeling hangs on.

Now, instead of another tour around the neighbourhood before dinner, and twilight lounging on the back deck after, the night comes sudden and shivering — before Sean gets home, and before the table is even laid. The Christmas tree has an appointment with the curb for pickup, and the strings of lights are packed away with all the sparkles.

A friend said yesterday that it is in our nature to hibernate, an instinct we spend these months fighting against, and I think she's right. 

But, we've rounded a corner. Now we can check off the start of winter term to the list with the winter solstice and a new calendar year. We marked that last one with particular fanfare, with sleeping in, followed by kougin-amann. 

Started the night before, the year before actually, the cakes rose overnight in the fridge. There's a magic in recipes that take care of themselves, as if the shoemaker's elves were sent to ease the arrival of this fresh set of days. One batch satisfied our needs, with enough to spare to pack up for pals who were passing through town on New Year's Day.

kouign-amann | Tara O'Brady

I don't think I'm unique in the mixed reaction to the new year. If I'm honest, when I consider the year that passed, I'm not sure where I stand on the subject. It was a lot of things, the year that one of my sons fell in love with swimming and roller coasters, and the other discovered an affinity for building things (his fingers went from chubby-little-guy-glorious to nimble, kid fingers overnight). It is the year my husband and I found out movies that don't make our kids cry might make us cry instead (ahem).  It will always be the year I finished my first book. Then one when we ripped out the carpets and we travelled more. It was a year of good news, and beginning, and discoveries. Of dance parties, Qwirkle, and a really excellent summer for tomatoes. Of friends getting engaged, others married, and others having children. Of them opening shows, publishing work, and starting businesses. But was also a year of waiting rooms. And stitches. There were long talks, then longer nights. Goodbyes. And some months when the losses outweighed any gains. 

It was a year of choosing and doing; of at times retreating, and others making it through.

Another friend remarked, last spring maybe, as he was experiencing his own stress-filled run, that maybe more and more days are like this because we are getting to be of a certain age. I think he might be right. 

And so, I know there's a melancholy for what has passed, along with a nervousness for what is ahead. I imagine the feeling as music box with the key wound too tight, bundled beneath my ribs somewhere.

There's an inherent energy in the coil of the mechanism. That vital potential momentum. That which has us moving forward towards those brighter days.

We're getting almost a full minute more sunlight in with each evening, and starting January 7th, we'll start making some gains in the morning on top of that. (By the way, all that solstice and equinox and sunrise and sunset time stuff is rather fascinating. Never have I thought so much about the angle of the Earth on its axis.)

kouign amann | Tara O'Brady

Fascinating in its own way, and a beacon on the 1st, was the kouign-amann. It is a Breton pastry whose name translates to "butter cake", and the only way I think to give a sense of it is as a croissant crossed with brioche, under the influence of a sugar bun. The dough is laminated, which is to say, stacked upon itself with a cushion of butter in between each layer. On the last fold a generous amount of sugar is incorporated into the pattern, then a final coat is added to each side. A kougin-amann can be baked as a single round, or cut into squares and tucked into ring moulds or muffin tin (tucking the points of the squares to the centre of the round creates that fluted edge and crenelated pattern on top). From the oven, a kougin-amann will emerge bubbling and burnished, and while the impulse is to feast immediately, they require a rest.

After a few minutes, what had been molten butterscotch where the pastry meets the pan cools to encrust the cake, and the fluffy, steaming interior sets into delineated strata. So, upon eating, that sugar outside fractures crunchily, giving way to a tender, delicate centre. 

Thus you have the story of how our year started with butter and sugar. But also with cooking and sharing a meal with some of those I love most. While there is an uncertainty in how the year will end, I'm holding on to how we started. That, I'd like to keep going all the way through. 

I wish you all golden days ahead. xo

 

KOUIGN-AMANN

Recipe by Claire Saffitz, as published in Bon Appétit, April 2014. (Mostly written as published, with a few changes to suit this site's formatting.) Making a laminated dough isn't exactly difficult — it's all about rolling and folding —  but it does require attention and care. And time. Lots of time, most of which is spent waiting for the dough to chill. What I recommend is start making the dough in the late afternoon. By bedtime, you should be ready to form the kouign-amann. Pop them in the fridge, covered, and then come back in the morning for baking.

Makes 12

FOR THE DOUGH

  • 2 tablespoons (30 g) European-style butter (at least 82% fat), melted, slightly cooled, plus more for bowl
  • 1 tablespoon (10 g) active dry yeast
  • 3 tablespoons (40 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt
  • 3 cups (400 g) all-purpose flour, plus more for surface

FOR THE BUTTER BLOCK

  • 12 oz. (340 g) chilled unsalted European-style butter (at least 82% fat), cut into pieces
  • ½ cup (100 g) sugar
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) kosher salt

TO ASSEMBLE

  • All-purpose flour, for dusting
  • ¾ cup (150 g) sugar, divided
  • Nonstick vegetable oil spray or some more melted butter for brushing the tin

 

METHOD

Make the dough. Brush a large bowl with butter. Whisk yeast and ¼ cup very warm water (110°–115°) in another large bowl to dissolve. Let stand until yeast starts to foam, about 5 minutes. Add sugar, salt, 3 cups flour, 2 Tbsp. butter, and ¾ cup cold water. Mix until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding flour as needed, until dough is supple, soft, and slightly tacky, about 5 minutes.

Place dough in prepared bowl and turn to coat with butter. Cover bowl with plastic wrap, place in a warm, draft-free spot, and let dough rise until doubled in size, 1–1½ hours. (This process of resting and rising is known as proofing.) Punch down dough and knead lightly a few times inside bowl. Cover again with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator until dough is again doubled in size, 45–60 minutes.

Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and pat into a 6x6” square. Wrap in plastic and chill in freezer until dough is very firm but not frozen, 30–35 minutes. (Heads up: You’ll want it to be about as firm as the chilled butter block.)

Now make the butter block. Beat butter, sugar, and salt with an electric mixer on low speed just until homogeneous and waxy-looking, about 3 minutes. Scrape butter mixture onto a large sheet of parchment. Shape into a 12x6” rectangle ¼” thick.

Neatly wrap up butter, pressing out air. Roll packet gently with a rolling pin to push butter into corners and create an evenly thick rectangle. Chill in refrigerator until firm but pliable, 25–30 minutes.

To assemble the pastries, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface into a 19x7” rectangle (a bit wider and about 50 percent longer than the butter block). Place butter block on upper two-thirds of dough, leaving a thin border along top and sides. Fold dough like a letter: Bring lower third of dough up and over lower half of butter. Then fold exposed upper half of butter and dough over lower half (butter should bend, not break). Press edges of dough to seal, enclosing butter.

Rotate dough package 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle about ⅜” thick.

Fold rectangle into thirds like a letter (same as before), bringing lower third up, then upper third down (this completes the first turn).

Dust dough lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer. (Freezing dough first cuts down on chilling time.)

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a 24x8” rectangle, about ⅜” thick. Fold into thirds (same way as before), rotate 90° counterclockwise so flap opening is on your right, and roll out again to a 24x8” rectangle.

Sprinkle surface of dough with 2 Tbsp. sugar; fold into thirds. Dust lightly with flour, wrap in plastic, and chill in freezer until firm but not frozen, about 30 minutes. Transfer to refrigerator; continue to chill until very firm, about 1 hour longer.

Place dough on surface so flap opening is on your right. Roll out dough, dusting with flour as needed, to a rectangle slightly larger than 16x12”. Trim to 16x12”. Cut into 12 squares (you’ll want a 4x3 grid). Brush excess flour from dough and surface.

Lightly coat muffin cups with nonstick spray. Sprinkle squares with a total of ¼ cup sugar, dividing evenly, and press gently to adhere. Turn over and repeat with another ¼ cup sugar, pressing gently to adhere. Shake off excess. Lift corners of each square and press into the center. Place each in a muffin cup. Wrap pans with plastic and chill in refrigerator at least 8 hours and up to 12 hours (dough will be puffed with slightly separated layers).

Preheat oven to 375°. Unwrap pans and sprinkle kouign-amann with remaining 2 Tbsp. sugar, dividing evenly. Bake until pastry is golden brown all over and sugar is deeply caramelized, 25–30 minutes (make sure to bake pastries while dough is still cold). Immediately remove from pan and transfer to a wire rack; let cool. 

NOTE (FROM TARA): 

  • As seen in the pictures, I chose to make slightly smaller pastries and used a standard muffin tin. I rolled the dough larger than suggested and then cut it into roughly 3-inch squares, yielding 18. Since my measurement and timing hasn't been tested more than once, I'd advise following the recipe as written rather than my example. 
  • Placing the pans on parchment-lined baking sheets will catch any butter overflow while baking.
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There are many reasons why I could never be a photojournalist. Chief among them being that when I travel, I regularly forget to take many photos.

Case in point, when I went to Seattle at the end of October, most of the pictures I have of my time there were taken over two days, even though I was there for eight. 

Pizzeria Gabbiano, Seattle

Pizzeria Gabbiano, Seattle

Instead, of documenting things as I intend, I get distracted by them. Lost the view on a drive down the coast; the road that winds and climbs beside the shore, and mountains that look like a theatre backdrop. Or caught up in people watching and the rose petal dukkah at The London Plane, or the roast chicken and the staggeringly-piled meringues at The Whale Wins, or the pizzas sold by the kilo at Pizzeria Gabbiano — two fingers' width worth of four types makes a fine lunch. (By the way, those pizzas are Roman-style, and brilliant with toppings like pistachio with mortadella, squash with mushrooms and blue cheese, and I hear they currently offer one with persimmon and 'nduja. If you go, please try it for me.)

Then it is the brioche at Le Picheta breakfast sandwich to write home about, too many coffees to count, and a walk through the art museum, and a few through the market, and return trip to a trio of food shops (here, here, and here). The guava ginger beer at Rachel's reminded me of India, my grandfather's house, and sitting on the dark green hood of his car eating guavas from the tree in the yard. 

Signs at Pizzeria Gabbiano

Signs at Pizzeria Gabbiano

Pike Place Market clams

Pike Place Market clams

Or its the multiple feasts between Delancey and Essex; skinny-and-wood-fired pizza (a crust with bubbles and char and chew), lamb barbacoa on toast, oysters, and succulent-as-all-get-out burgers the size of my fist. And The Man About Town, Ashley's Sazerac, and the scent of flamed cinnamon stick for that one cocktail (it stings the nostrils. In a good way.) Those spaces are immediately welcoming, with tables close enough to feel like everyone's at the same party. And where everyone seems to be a regular. want to be a regular.

(I need to get back for Taco and Tiki Tuesday.)

Flowers at the end of the day, Seattle

Flowers at the end of the day, Seattle

And then people.

Aran is the one that brought me to the Seattle, to lead a workshop on the mechanics of telling stories across multiple disciplines — basically, how photography and words, and even food, can be teamed up, and how we can make the best use of each to serve an overall whole. We covered the elements and principles of design, the fundamentals of writing, and copy and developmental edits. We took photos and made notes, and swapped inspirations. Aran and Bee made recipes from my manuscript for lunch (one of which is below — if you hover your mouse over the photo, details will swoosh up like magic). I talked a lot about working with intention, which made me think a lot about what my own aims and goals are with what it is I do. 

It was a grand group in the studio that weekend.

Baked Eggs, North Indian Style 

Baked Eggs, North Indian Style 

While Aran's invite gave me the excuse to (almost) cross the continent, the trip had long been on my wish list. Beyond the class, I was able to see Lecia, Ashley, ElissaMegan and SamBrandi, Jenny, Brandon and Molly, and Tara. It took me too long to get there. 

Aran's gluten-free apple tart

Aran's gluten-free apple tart

I was in the midst of a community of creative people, each driven in their different ways; some writers, others artists, designers, business owners — all actively pursuing their own goals. And again, with such company the topic of conversation meandered to work, ours and others, comparing approaches and the challenges of experiences. (It wasn't always so serious. Subjects also included Bollywood films, high school dating, bleaching one's hair with lemon juice, numbered streets, scarves, and the O'Hooligan boys).  

One night, Tara and I stood on the near a bonfire with high flames that deserved photography, and talked about our cities, about purpose and plans, and family. There was a chill in the air, but we didn't need coats. You could see downtown from where we were, multicoloured and evenly glowing, and between there and where we were was the silken rippling expanse of the inlet, reflecting that light here and there like sparks.

Boats out the market windows

Boats out the market windows

My book went to the printer on December 1st.

In a printshop somewhere, its starting to exist as something real. Physical. With a weight that can be held in hand rather than felt in the abstract. Once I am able to share a more about its contents in this space, I have every intention of then sharing that much more about what I was trying to get across with its writing. Seattle gave me a chance to practice what I want to say.

I'm looking forward to it.

Amy Chaplin's Spicy Carrot Soup with Lime Leaves and Coconut

Amy Chaplin's Spicy Carrot Soup with Lime Leaves and Coconut

Since I've been home, I've started a habit of soup. I think it's Aran's influence, as she has this witchy ability to make simple soups with remarkable depth.

One that has been a large part of this current trend, is from Amy Chaplin's book At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen, which was released just over a month ago. It is a curry-bright carrot bowlful scented with lime leaves and lemongrass, spiked by chilies and smoothed out with coconut milk. It starts with aromatics in the pan to sauté, then in goes everything else. It's a breeze to get together in less less than 10 minutes, then it is left to blip contentedly on the stove for 20 minutes more. It is voluptuous and comforting, with enough heat to restrain the vegetal sweetness and an aromatic freshness. While it is vegan, I wouldn't call that it is its selling point. It is an excellent, stomach-and-soul satisfying meal, simple as that, which is to say, everything Amy's food is about.

Amy has 20 years experience in the food industry, as a former executive chef, teacher, recipe developer, and private chef. She is a vegetarian, and her recipes are often vegan, yet once more, that status doesn't come across as first impression. Amy cooks seasonally, with a globe-covering collection of influences, never encumbered by unnecessary fuss, or sacrificing flavour for dietary restriction. There is never a feeling of absence with the recipes, they have everything they need. The dishes are sometimes soothing, others vibrant and rousing. It is truly good food, first and foremost, which just so happens to be accompanied by a sensible, and adaptable approach to feeding ourselves in a conscientious way. 

It is an impressive collection of over 150 recipes, from pantry staples to full meals, beginning with an in-depth discussion of ingredients and Amy's practices when it comes to how she cooks. It is an invaluable resource, a true reference as well as a cookbook. It gives the reader the tools to change the way they eat, and by extension, their health, and our environment. The book itself is almost intimidating in its beauty, verging on an object to behold rather than use — but then Amy's enthusiasm and quiet, approachable expertise shines off the pages and you're charmed.

Amy, mission accomplished. 

And Seattle, I can't wait see you again. 

 

SPICY CARROT SOUP WITH LIME LEAVES AND COCONUT

Making a pot of this invigorating soup in the middle of winer is the perfect antidote to cold, gray days. The lively flavours of ginger and chill are tempered by a good splash of coconut milk, creating a gorgeous texture and bright orange colour. The lime leaves and lemongrass give the soup a nice lift, but if you don't have them on hand, don't worry. I have made this dish many times without them with delicious results.

Note: in cold weather, coconut milk is solid at room temperature. To melt it, place the can in a bowl of a hot water for a few minutes, then shake well before using.

— From At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen: Celebrating the Art of Eating Well by Amy Chaplin (Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications Inc., 2014)

SERVES 6

FOR THE SOUP

  • 2 stalks lemongrass, halved lengthwise and chopped in 2-inch pieces
  • 6 lime leaves
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin coconut oil
  • 2 medium onions, diced
  • 6 garlic cloves, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
  • 1 serrano chili, seeded and minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, plus more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons curry powder (see note below)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric
  • 3 tablespoons minced cilantro stems, leaves reserved for garnish
  • 10 medium-large carrots (2 1/2 pounds) cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 8 cups)
  • 6 cups filtered water
  • 1 (13.5-ounce) can unsweetened full-fat coconut milk, stirred and divided
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, optional

TO SERVE

  • Cilantro leaves
  • Sliced red chilies

 

METHOD

Wrap lemongrass and lime leaves in a piece of cheesecloth and tie it tightly. Set aside.

Warm coconut oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onions, and sauté for 5 minutes, or until golden. Add garlic, ginger, serrano chili, and salt; cook for 2 to 3  minutes more, lowering heat if mixture begins to stick. Stir in curry powder, turmeric, and cilantro stems. Add carrots, water, 1 1/4 cups coconut milk, and lemongrass-lime leaf bundle. Raise heat to high and bring to a boil. Cover pot, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 20 minutes or until carrots are tender. Remove from heat and remove lemongrass-lime leaf bundle and compost. 

Blend soup in batches in an upright blender on highest speed for 1 to 2 minutes, until completely smooth and velvety; return to pot and season to taste. Stir in cayenne pepper, if using. Ladle the soup into bowls and garnish each bowl with a drizzle of reserved coconut milk, cilantro leaves, and chilies. 

NOTES (from Tara)

  • Lime leaves are often sold frozen at Asian groceries and will keep for ages in the freezer. They might also be called murkat lime leaves. 
  • I used Amy's curry powder from the book, but any one you like will be fine here. The water can also be replaced with vegetable stock. 
  • To serve, I added browned cubes of paneer, along with cashews I'd bashed around in a mortar and pestle. 
The last of a workshop lunch at Aran's studio

The last of a workshop lunch at Aran's studio

Now! Finally! Since you made it this far! To in addition to sharing this recipe, Amy and Roost Books generously sent a copy of At Home in the Whole Food kitchen for me to pass on to one of you! If you'd like to be in the running, please comment below to that effect, and be sure to include an email address when you sign in (i.e. on the form, not in the comment field). A winner will be randomly selected after 8 PM EST Friday, December 12, 2014. UPDATE! Congratulations to CASEY on winning the book! I'll be in touch via email. Thanks to all who entered.

One more thing! On the topic of coming home, my friend Tiffany Mayer's book on Niagara and its food was released this fall. It chronicles the region's farming history, its present food culture, and the hopes for its future in an ever-changing environment and economy. The book, called Niagara Food, reads like a chat with a particularly smart friend, and celebrates not only this area's bounty, but also the people who make it their life's work to feed others. She did such a great job with it. 

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